Lockout truly raw deal for NHL grunts

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 8:49 AM ET

They are rank-and-file NHLers, sons of farmers or blue-collar workers from small-town Manitoba, where nobody makes a million dollars.

And all they want to do is play hockey.

But Neepawa's Shane Hnidy, Marty Murray of Lyleton and J. P. Vigier of Notre Dame de Lourdes are caught up in what could turn out to be the ugliest labour dispute in sports history.

While it's obvious which side of the NHL lockout they're on, you get the feeling they're as frustrated as anyone over how the business of hockey has taken over a game they used to play for nothing.

Actually, that's precisely what Hnidy and Murray are doing again.

While Vigier will play for the Atlanta Thrashers AHL affiliate in Chicago this season, Hnidy and Murray, the Nashville Predators defenceman and Carolina Hurricanes forward, respectively, have joined the Original Stars League, a collection of NHLers set to play four-on-four exhibition games for next to nothing.

Chances are, revenue generated from their opening game in Moncton tonight -- Hnidy and Murray are suiting up for the Bruins -- won't even cover the cost of the hotel room they're sharing.

"I know how the fans feel -- they don't have much sympathy for us," Hnidy, 28, said during a phone interview yesterday. "It's hard to understand, even for us."

And even harder to explain to friends and family members back home.

"It's tough to talk about," Hnidy said. "A lot of us are just small-town Canadian boys. It's not like I go out and drink champagne every night. I don't have a Porsche or a Ferrari or anything fancy like that. I'm not going to complain. I'll never complain. By no means am I hard up.

"The toughest part is we're made out to be the bad guys. You look at the average salary -- why feel sorry for these guys? Hell, I'd love to have that average salary."

Truth is, Hnidy and Murray, who's 29, don't make half the NHL average of $1.8 million.

But when their union won't accept a system that would reduce that average to $1.3 million, they're still seen as greedy.

"I'm sure a lot of people are wondering why you can't play under a cap," Murray said. "Lots of friends and family have asked us that. It's a tough question. We're obviously compensated very well for what we do. We think there's a better way to keep the open market.

"We've given up concessions that are going to lower our salaries. We're just asking to have a fair market and for the owners to be responsible for their spending."

That's the thing about this tiff that prevents me from siding with the owners.

They're the ones who got themselves into this mess. They bid against each other for free agents, stabbing each other in the back as they went.

And instead of trying to correct the system gradually, like, say, back in 1994 when they signed the last collective bargaining agreement, they wait until they're losing so much money they're forced to make a drastic change to the system.

The players union balks, naturally, and here we are, in the early stages of a lockout that could easily last a year, or more.

Make no mistake, the arena workers and front office employees are the real victims.

Worked tails off

But it's hard not to feel just a little sympathetic for non-stars like Hnidy, Murray and Vigier, Manitobans who've worked their tails off to get to the NHL.

They finally become regulars, and the whole thing goes off the rails.

"It's something you strive for and work for your whole life," Hnidy said. "It's a long road. I don't know how many years I have left. It's frustrating, because there's gotta be a middle ground to be found."


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